The following suggestion is targeted at the undergraduate student
who writes several argumentative essays every semester, but who
has never formally learnt how to do so and rarely takes the time
to reflect on how it should be done. The suggestion takes the form
of a model that highlights what one might expect to find in the
three main parts of a good argumentative essay. As a model to help
you reflect on what you are doing well and what you should be doing
differently, it is necessarily categorical and systematic. In trying
to master the model, you should not inadvertently become a slave
to it. Otherwise, your essays will become rigid and sterile. Instead,
use this as a mental checklist that you can build upon and even
be playful with, developing in the process a confident, independent
and original voice.
||Identify and state your objects of analysis.
||The topic or question will often ask you to discuss
central texts, key ideas or concepts, issues, or a combination
|| Provide some background to the thesis and
reveal the motive for arguing it.
||An effective description of the context, situation or problem
can demonstrate why the thesis is interesting and worth arguing.
Here is your chance to convince your readers (including the
marker) that your essay is worth reading—something not
to be taken for granted!
|| Formulate and state your thesis.
A thesis is a clearly articulated general idea that expresses
the main point you want to argue in your essay. It should
- sufficiently focused and narrow so that it can be fully
discussed in your essay;
- a position that is debatable, and dependent on the strength
of evidence and logical development; not a simple statement
of fact, a declaration of belief that cannot be reasonably
substantiated, a tautological or circular expression, an
obvious point, and so on;
|| Define the key terms, state the assumptions,
and describe the methodology.
Key terms: You will often find terms in the question,
topic or your thesis itself whose meanings are essentially
contested or indeterminate or ambiguous because of colloquial
misuse. These terms may be crucial in your larger analysis
and, if for no other reason than this, must be defined (even
tentatively) before you can hinge your arguments on them.
Assumptions: The set of fundamental ‘givens’
that make your arguments consistent, coherent, and meaningful
can be stated at the start. This is sometimes done in the
interest of intellectual honesty and to indicate to the reader
where you might be coming from ideologically.
Research methodology: You may want to describe
your main analytical approach (e.g. inter-disciplinary), the
sources that you use in your analysis (e.g. archival material,
literature reviews, internet forums) and how you obtained
them (e.g. interviews, opinion surveys, regression analysis).
||Sketch a roadmap.
||If your thesis tells the readers where you want to take them
in the journey that is your essay, a roadmap will tell them
how they will get there—which main roads, turning points,
and detours they can expect to take.
|| Construct your arguments.
To develop your thesis, you will need to construct
a series of smaller supporting arguments that are relevant
to the thesis. While every argument should be directed to
the thesis, the individual arguments should not simply be
linked together as a random chain of implicitly related but
distinct reasons. Instead, they should follow a coherent and
logical sequence that builds up, often dramatically, to a
convincing and satisfying restatement of the thesis in the
Using clear topic sentences that state the main point of
each paragraph can help you to be sensitive to the shape of
your arguments. You should also think about how the arguments
can come together to produce a dramatic build-up, going through
various twists and turns, and allowing for conflicts, negotiations,
and resolutions to play out. Other related considerations
include a sense of timing (e.g. when to reveal certain arguments
or facts, for dramatic effect) and proportion (e.g. how much
space should be given to each argument).
|| Support your arguments with evidence.
||Broadly speaking, you can support your arguments with empirical
evidence in the form of facts, data, statistics, examples, controlled
observations, and so on. You should not simply mention them;
you should instead elaborate on them by giving details to be
connected deliberately with the arguments being made. Also,
you should try to give an indication of the reliability of your
evidence. You can also support your arguments with academic
and professional expertise that you cite or quote directly.
To avoid plagiarism, you must cite your sources.
|| Deal with counter-arguments.
||You will also need to imagine and anticipate reasonable objections
to your thesis and the arguments developed around it. You will
need to describe these objections fairly (i.e. don’t create
straw men to be knocked down effortlessly). And you will then
need to deal with them decisively, demonstrating the superiority
of your argument (or some adjusted form of your argument). This
not only strengthens your arguments, but also makes your essay
more complicated and therefore more interesting.
||Provide your reader with the necessary orientation.
It is always important to write with a clear sense of audience
(i.e. ‘Who are you writing this for?’). Knowing
who your readers are will give you a good idea of what kind
and extent of background information you will need to provide
before your ideas, arguments, and evidence can make full sense
to the readers.
At the start of the journey, you provided readers with a
roadmap. During the journey itself, you should provide clear
signposts along the way to give readers a good sense of where
they are in this journey. You might, for example, pause at
critical junctures in the essay to inform readers about what
you have done so far, where you are in the overall argument,
and what you are going to do next.
||Retrace your steps.
||Once you have arrived at the conclusion, it is
often a good idea to remind readers, in summary, where they
have been. This is where your topic sentences can come in handy.
||Restate your thesis.
||If your arguments have been focused, strong and well developed,
you can now confidently reassert your original thesis, or an
adjusted or improved version of the thesis that has taken into
account the counter-arguments dealt with along the way.
||Point towards the wider significance of your
This aspect is not altogether necessary for writing a good
essay, and it may in fact severely weaken your essay if handled
without skill. In any case, writers are usually advised not
to introduce any ‘new’ ideas in the conclusion.
However, if you are indeed confident, you may want to consider
including a few lines explaining what further implications
your thesis might have for other similar or wider questions.
You may even want to make recommendations for further study
or for action (e.g. in the case of policy papers). And you
may also want to try your hand at ‘scenario-painting’.
Once again, be aware of the perils.
||Make an impact with the final word.
||Do not end your essay with a sentence that seems to have a
‘nice ring to it’, but in fact means nothing or
is completely irrelevant to the arguments. Instead, you might
want to end with a witty and relevant detail, illustration,
recurring motif, quotation, or anecdote that may keep readers
thinking about your essay long after they have read it.